11 Ways To Get a Letter from the White House

All it takes is planning and a little patience.

President Barack Obama, potentially writing to you. (Photo: Pete Souza/Public Domain)

As we all know, citizens of the United States enjoy certain unalienable rights: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, festive balloon drops, and the ability to leave our dogs millions of dollars.

But according to recent tradition, Americans receive certain unalienable courtesies, too—like the occasional birthday card from the Commander in Chief, typed out on impressive stationery so that we can show it off to our friends. It turns out that, with planning and a bit of patience, it's not terribly hard to get snail mail sent to you from the White House. 

The last 15 presidents have responded to fan mail with branded stationery—in the late 1870s, Rutherford B. Hayes took to sending admirers a simple card emblazoned with "EXECUTIVE MANSION, WASHINGTON," and signed and dated in his loopy hand. Over the next century or so, as the duties of the office grew, presidents started farming out their signatures to volunteers and autopens. These days, such requests are handled by the White House Greetings Office, who have the whole thing down to a science, sending out congratulation cards 'from' the First Family "in accordance with long-standing guidelines," as it says on their website.

If you know those guidelines, though, the rest is easy. Essentially, the White House is like a considerate great-uncle, dutifully tossing a card in the mail for traditional milestones and leaving the rest to those who know you better. Here are some good ways to get mail from the White House Greetings Office—including some you may not have thought of.

Note: The White House is currently (and pretty much always) swamped with mail, and recommends requesting greetings at least six weeks ahead of the relevant occasion. 

Getting Married

The Obamas, demonstrating their love for weddings, in 2012. (Photo: Pete Souza/Public Domain)

If you have a couple of open seats at your wedding, consider inviting the First Couple. They might not show up, but they'll definitely send their respects via a classy card, complete with their two signatures standing side by side. If you don't feel like putting the White House mailroom through the whole save-the-date, pick-a-meal rigamarole, you can also request a wedding congratulations via this handy form. (Greeting cards for many other occasions on this list can be requested by the same form.)

Welcoming A Baby

Everyone loves saying hey to babies, and the President is no exception. If your family has welcomed a child within the past year, either via birth or adoption, let the White House know, and they'll send over a congratulatory note. Make sure you're clear about exactly when the baby arrived, or you could end up like Benjamin Shosted, a youngster from Utah who accidentally received a 101st birthday card from the Obamas last year.

Impressive Birthdays

President Harry Truman on his 67th birthday, in 1951. (Photo: Abbie Rowe/Public Domain)

If you actually turn 101, you can look forward to a note from the First Family. You don't even have to get that far, though —the White House will send birthday cards to citizens turning 80 (and veterans turning 70), and then follow up at 85, 90, 95, 100, and every year after. The cards name recipients an "integral part of the American narrative." You can request one for yourself or a loved one.

(Bonus: If you flip the script and send President Obama a birthday card, he might send you a thank you note in return. Quick—his birthday is Thursday, August 4, and your mom probably won't remind you about it.)

50th Anniversaries

If your marriage ends up lasting half a century—perhaps thanks to your lucky White House Wedding Card—you can look forward to more kudos from whatever Presidential pair is currently in office. Of all the form messages available, these cards might provide the most insight into their signatories' true values. While George W. and Laura Bush focused on "love and devotion," the Clintons preferred to namecheck "success and personal growth." The Obamas are currently congratulating long-lasted couples on marriages built on support and endurance, calling them "truly golden." Clever!

Eagle Scout and Girl Scout Gold Awards

A pile of Eagle Scout greeting requests in the Office of Correspondence, circa 2014. (Screenshot: Youtube)

You don't reach the upper scouting echelons by going halfway, and the U.S. Scouting Foundation has a long list of people from whom high-achieving teens can request congratulations, including cabinet members, astronauts, the Marine Corps, the Joy Ice Cream Cone Company, and Survivorman Les Stroud, along with the President. You might as well have the complete set.

Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, or equivalent religious occasions

This may be the best White House swag option, as it is basically a sanctioned way to let the President know you've hit puberty and are now a force to be reckoned with. Plus, if you order the card long enough ahead, you can blow up the letter on huge cardstock and have people take selfies with it during your party.

Although the official guidelines do not specify other coming-of-age occasions that might merit a card, presumably confirmations, quinceañeras, and other religious celebrations also fit the bill. More staid occasions deemed cardworthy by the White House include faith leaders' 25-year marks, and the anniversaries of places of worship.

Expressing Actual Political Opinions

Sure, you can wait for an important occasion to remind Washington that you exist. If you'd rather get down and dirty, though, sending a letter (or email) to the White House is still a legitimate way of making your concerns known, and getting a response in turn.

As of 2014, the White House was receiving 65,000 paper letters each week, along with 100,000 emails and a thousand or so faxes. But that doesn't necessarily mean your message will get drowned out. Obama reads 10 letters a day, selected from the incoming piles by the Office of Correspondence. Of these, he personally responds to three or four.

"These letters do more to keep me in touch with what's happening around the country than just about anything else," the President said in 2014.  Even if your particular letter doesn't end up on Obama's desk, it will eventually receive an individual response from the correspondence team.

This is also the only type of White House swag the author can personally vouch for—at age 6, I wrote a letter to Vice President Al Gore regarding the protection of the endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse. I received a postcard reply about six months later, and said beach mouse is still (for now) holding on. Postal democracy works!

Graduations

Which is fancier: diploma paper or White House cardstock? Only one way to find out.

Family Reunions

Theodore Roosevelt and family in 1903. (Photo: LC-DIG-ppmsca-35741/Public Domain)

It's fine to bring potato salad to a family reunion, but it's slightly cooler to bring a congratulatory note from the President of the United States. If your fam has been getting together annually for at least 25 years, the White House deems your dynasty worthy of an official acknowledgement. Who's the First Family now?!

Retirements

The White House sends out felicitations to the recently retired, a milestone likely close to the Obamas' hearts this year. It's not entirely clear how long you have to stay with your job before you get recognized, though it's much longer than eight years—some sources list 20 years, while others say 30. Probably best not to plan your retirement around that anyway, though.

Cat Birthdays

The Clintons' cat, Socks, takes the podium in 1993. (Photo: Barbara Kinney/Public Domain)

While this species of occasion does not show up on official lists, it has worked at least once—Granpa the cat, once the oldest living cat in the world, invited then-President Bill Clinton to his 34th birthday party. The president declined, but sent along a card with his best wishes. If you are planning a cat (or dog, or fish, or lizard) party this year, why not try inviting the Obamas? It can't hurt, and you could end up with the rarest of two-dimensional accomplishments—a truly unique White House greeting.

Have you received an unusual greeting from a US President? Tell us about it at cara@atlasobscura.com.